A Tale Of True Love: Romance in A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, is not a romance novel, but it is a classic testimony to the importance of romantic love. As all are no doubt aware, it’s the story of a cranky, miserly man (Ebenezer Scrooge) who is visited by three ghosts (four, counting his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley). These ghosts take him through the past, present, and future, offering him a chance of redemption. Part of this journey involves Ebenezer Scrooge’s rejection of the concept of romantic love in the past, and his acceptance of it in the present. Among many other things, the book offers a powerful statement about the ability of romantic love to show us our best and happiest selves during both good and bad times.

The first hint we get about romantic love being important comes from The Ghost of Christmas Past. The Ghost shows Ebenezer a vision of himself as a young man employed by Mr. Fezziwig. Mr. Fezziwig delights in a wonderful name and a cheerful disposition, and he throws a ball for his friends and his employees. The primary role of this scene is to contrast Fezziwig’s generous behavior towards his employees with the way Ebenezer mistreats his own clerk (Bob Cratchit, father of Tiny Tim). However, there’s also a hint of romance in the happy marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig:

Then old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs. Fezziwig. Top couple, too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.

But if they had twice as many, ah! four times, old Fezziwig, would have been a match for them, and so would Mrs. Fezziwig. As to her, she was worthy to be his partner in every sense of the term. If that’s not high praise, tell me higher, and I’ll use it.

Even though we know very little about the Fezziwigs, they seem to have so much fun being together at the party that it seems they are deeply fond of each other. This marriage is based on love, and the happiness born from that love extends to Fezziwig’s family, friends, and employees.

the Fezziwigs, original illustration
Original illustration by John Leech

Next, the Ghost of Christmas shows Ebenezer the day when Ebenezer’s fiancée, Belle, broke up with him. They fell in love when they were both poor, and with the passage of time Ebenezer has grown so obsessed with gaining wealth that Belle feels eclipsed by this obsession:

If you were free to-day, to-morrow, yesterday, can even I believe that you would choose a dowerless girl-you who, in your very confidence with her, weigh everything with Gain: or, choosing her, if for a moment you were false enough to your one guiding principle to do so, do I not know that your repentance and regret would surely follow? I do; and I release you. With a full heart, for the love of him you once were.

The Ghost reveals that Belle marries another, and though they are not rich, they are comfortable, and able to provide for a large, loud, happy family. While Ebenezer is alone and Jacob Marley is dying, Belle’s house is in a state of joyful chaos. I quote this bit out of pure-self indulgence as it always makes me laugh:

The shouts of wonder and delight with which the development of every package was received! The terrible announcement that the baby had been taken in the act of putting a doll’s frying pan into his mouth, and was more than suspected of having swallowed a fictitious turkey, glued on a wooden platter! The immense relief of finding this a false alarm!

At this point the introverts among us may start to feel that Scrooge’s lonely office is quite attractive, but the point being made is that Belle is happy with her husband and her noisy children. She had a fantasy of marrying for love, and she pursued that ideal at great cost, and it paid off in a great deal of happiness.

We now move on to the Ghost of Christmas Present, who shows Ebenezer his nephew’s Christmas party. Previously, Ebenezer rebuffed his nephew’s invitation, at least in part because he disapproved of the nephew’s marriage.

However, the party is exactly the party we all wish we were invited to. Fred (the nephew) clearly adores his wife, who clearly adores him back. The group has a good dinner and they sing and play games. Fred’s friend Topper flirts shamelessly with one of Fred’s sister-in-laws, “the plump one with the lace tucker, not the one with the roses.” The partygoers even let the introvert have some time to herself. Romantic love is in full swing in both a married state and in the stage of courtship, and the more love abounds, the more joyful everyone seems to be.

A colored illustration of Fred's party
Fred’s Party, illustration by Roberto Innocenti

The Ghost of Christmas Future shows Ebenezer that no one will miss Ebenezer after he dies. When Ebenezer begs the Ghost of Christmas Future to show him some tenderness connected to a death, the Ghost again turns to marriage – a couple who was in debt to Ebenezer, and the Cratchits. Both are in dire straits and the Cratchits are also experiencing terrible grief, but in both cases husband and wife draw strength and comfort from one another. It’s easy to see that love brings happiness when all is well, as in the case of Fred’s party and Belle’s noisy Christmas Eve. The Ghost of Christmas Future shows Ebenezer that love is not just a luxury but also a tool for survival that allows people to move through grief without becoming broken or bitter.

The Cratchits, played by The Muppets, in happier times
The Cratchits, played by The Muppets, in happier times

A Christmas Carol shows us many kinds of love and connection. There’s love between parents and children, love between siblings, love between friends, and the general love of “fellow man.” It’s fascinating that romantic love is seen as something that creates and sustains all these different kinds of love. In this story, even people who haven’t or are not experiencing romantic love can benefit from it, as the happiness of two people radiates outward and extends joy and generosity to everyone who comes within its circle.

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  1. Qualisign says:

    I loved Dickens when I was young, having read every one of his books in the school and public libraries when I was 12-13 years old. However, after learning a could of years ago that he tried to get his wife committed to an asylum so that he could take another partner, I find I am absolutely outraged and can no longer read anything he has written. And I still think A Christmas Carol is an incredible story. You are absolutely right about his excellent presentation of the small, intimate and loving relationship, but he shows the unhealthy and warped in much larger scale. A Christmas Carol has the best redemption scene at the end, but I still find it almost impossible to get over Dickens’ personal cruelties.

    Very nice discussion, Carrie S. It was good to be reminded of the lovely healthy relationships abundant in the story.

  2. Gillian B says:

    Agreed. One of the reasons I love “Love Actually” is the love scenes that aren’t cis het straight people in love. I love the Laura Linney and her brother, and the love she has for him that makes her set aside the gorgeous Carl. The love between Bill Nighy’s rocker and his manager, which is a friendship that has lasted for ages. Sam and his dad, where his (step) dad’s love means supporting and encouraging his son, even when his own heart is so broken. The other loves are sweet and lovely (well, with a couple of exceptions), but there is more than one love…

  3. The New Classic says:

    Really great essay. I never really thought of A Christmas Carol in the context of the importance of romantic love, but now I can see it’s there.

    @ Qualisign: Oh, yeah. The entire time I was reading this I was thinking about how much I loathed Charles Dickens. What he did to his wife was awful, and he was a pretty terrible father. He lamented, often, what a bunch of “total failures” his children were. Dad of the year, right there.

    IDK. A part of me says that Charles Dickens’ messy personal life shouldn’t take away from the lovely message of A Christmas Carol. But… I still have a little trouble with it, I guess.

  4. Jen says:

    I love A Christmas Carol and I love that you included an image from the Muppet version because that is the very best version of that story (forever and ever, amen). And actually speaking of that version and of love, that song Belle sings about lost love (which got cut in the screen version but is on my DVD version) is really the catalyst for Scrooge’s transformation in the movie. He realizes the love he gave up for money and is beginning to see what a hollow trade that was. So good!

  5. Karin says:

    That is lovely. I’ve never warmed up to reading Dickens, being forced to in high school ruined it for me. But maybe I should give him another try.

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